Covering the walls on three sides of an alcove tub, tub surrounds protect the wall from water damage while adding to your bathroom design. From tile tub surrounds to solid surface surrounds, there are a lot of choices for homeowners looking to give their tub area an update. Learn the pros, cons and installation considerations for each one to make sure you get the best solution for your bathroom.
Types of Tub Surrounds
Tub surround is the term for any material that covers the surface of your walls and protects them from moisture damage. Surrounds can be decorative or utilitarian, and are available in many different materials.
Nearly any tile can be used on a surround, provided that steps are taken to protect porous materials, such as stone, from moisture. Tile surrounds are ideal in bathrooms that have tile on the walls elsewhere; the tile can continue straight into the tub area. This is also a good idea for small bathrooms; using the same tile on the tub surround as on the floor outside the tub will make the bathroom look larger than it actually is.
- Tile is decorative and can be installed in a number of patterns and designs to complement the rest of your bathroom design.
- Tile installed properly over a cement backerboard and a waterproofing membrane provides good protection against moisture.
- Small sections of tile can be removed and replaced without damage to the entire structure.
- The grout joints between the tiles may be subject to moisture problems, which can lead to cracking and replacement over time.
- Tile may crack, particularly if installed improperly, which could lead to moisture penetration.
- Some tiles, such as those with crackled finishes, or those made out of stone, require a lot of maintenance in wet areas.
Tile surrounds install just like any other wall or shower tile. The key to a successful tub installation lies in the preparation:
- Take out the walls or drywall down to the studs.
- Hang a waterproofing membrane from the top of the studs. Allow it to hang straight down to the tub.
- Screw cement backerboard directly to the studs, every 6-inches, leaving a 1/8-inch gap between each sheet of backerboard and around the perimeter of each wall.
- Tape the seams with a fiberglass tape and skim the tape with a coat of thinset mortar. Let the mortar dry for 24 hours, then install the tile over it.
Acrylic Tub Surrounds
Acrylic surrounds are typically three-piece units made out of a poured acrylic resin. They can be installed over tile, greenboard, drywall or cement backerboard. They can also be installed right over the studs if they have been covered with a waterproofing membrane. Acrylic surrounds are great for rental units, low maintenance bathrooms and older bathrooms that need a quick facelift.
- Acrylic surrounds are fairly inexpensive and easy to install.
- Surrounds only need caulk in the corners and along the tub edge, which means there are fewer chances for leaks and water damage.
- Acrylic surrounds often have built-in grab bars, towel bars and soap dishes.
- Acrylic surrounds come in only a few colors and are fairly plain.
- Acrylic can scratch and dull, which may leave it looking dingy over time.
- Remove the faucet trim and spout, as well as the shower head from the existing surround
- Remove any damaged tiles and cut out damp or wet drywall.
- Replace these areas with cement backerboard, which is designed for damp environments.
- Make a template of your water wall to ensure you know where the valve, spout and shower head will be on the acrylic wall. Take the cardboard box your surround came in and place it over the water wall. Cut it down to size, so it fits the wall perfectly. Mark the position of the valve, shower head and spout and cut these areas out. Double check the fit of the cardboard over the plumbing to make sure it fits.
- Lay the cardboard down on top of the acrylic wall and trace the cutouts from the cardboard right onto the acrylic.
- Cut out the plumbing holes with a hole saw and double check the fit on the water wall before installing.
- Place the back wall of the surround in place and have a helper check to ensure it's level. Draw a line across the top of the surround onto the wall behind it to mark its position. Repeat for the two side walls.
- Squeeze a bead of silicone adhesive onto the backs of each of the corner panels on the surround and press them into place on the wall.
- Squeeze a bead of adhesive onto the back wall of the surround just below the line you drew. Squeeze a small, 1-inch bead of adhesive onto the wall a few inches below the first line. Repeat going down the wall every few inches. Line up the panel with your line and press it into place. Repeat for the two side walls.
- Squeeze a bead of caulk into the corners of each wall and along the bottom of the surround where the walls attach to the tub.
- Smooth the caulk into place with a wet index finger.
- Installing your plumbing fixtures and caulk into place. Allow the adhesive and caulk to dry for 24 hours before using the shower.
Cultured marble and other cultured stone products are man made materials that contain natural stone. They often have swirls of color or other patterns, as well as a high-gloss gel coat finish. They work well in bathrooms that have a cultured marble vanity top to match and can be cut and shaped to any tub surround size.
- Cultured marble is fairly inexpensive.
- Cultured marble panels can be fitted over drywall, greenboard or backerboard.
- Lots of different colors are available to fit in with your bathroom decor.
- Surrounds made of cultured marble are fairly low maintenance.
- Cultured marble can scratch, dull or warp easily, which means frequent repairs
- Because kits are rarely available, sheets will need to be fitted to your surround, which makes installation tougher than other options.
- Prime or paint the walls surrounding the tub white. Any other color will show through the cultured marble and affect the look of the finished installation.
- Test the fit of the back wall panel. If needed, cut the panel to fit on a circular saw, cutting with the back side of the panel up to avoid chipping the front. If the panel is slightly out of plumb, use a belt sander to remove the excess from from one section to fit.
- Repeat on the other two panels.
- Place a large piece of cardboard on the water or plumbing wall of the shower and trim it to fit the size and shape of the wall.
- Mark the positions of the tub spout, shower valve and shower head on the cardboard and cut holes in the cardboard for the plumbing to fit.
- Lay the cardboard down on top of the back of the cultured marble panel for this wall. Trace the holes onto the cultured marble and cut them out with a hole saw, again cutting from the back of the panel.
- Hold the back panel against the back wall of the surround and have an assistant hold it in place while you level it. Draw a line across the top of the panel on the wall to indicate its position. Repeat on the other two panels.
- Squeeze a white, silicone adhesive onto the back wall using a serpentine pattern, covering the wall within three inches of all sides.
- Line up the panel and press it into place. Repeat for the other two panels.
- Squeeze a thin bead of caulk into the corners of the panels and around the bottom perimeter of the surround and smooth the caulk into place with a wet index finger.
- Install the shower fixtures on the water wall and caulk into place.
- Allow the adhesives to dry for 24 hours before using the tub or shower.
Other Tub Surround Materials
In addition to those materials used regularly, there are a few other types of tub surrounds that get used less often.
Fiberglass tub surrounds are typically one-piece units that come with the tub attached. They are typically installed in new construction only, due to the logistics of getting the tub and shower surround into the bathroom. Because there are no seams in a fiberglass unit, they have fewer chances of leaking and often last longer than other surrounds.
Solid surface materials can also be used to create a tub surround. Solid surface is a type of resin, like acrylic, that is fused together at the seams so there is no need for caulk. This type of surround must be templated and installed by a fabricator. Because different pieces can be fused together, solid surface surrounds often are made up of multiple colors, patterns or designs, which gives them a designer look. This type of surround is very low maintenance, but can be very expensive.
Bridging the gap between tile, solid surface and acrylic tub surrounds is Swanstone. Swanstone is a solid surface product that comes in readymade panels like an acrylic surround. The panels often have an embossed tile pattern on them, which gives them the look and feel of a tile surround without the maintenance.
Protect Your Walls
Tub surrounds do more than finish the look of your bathroom. They protect your bathroom walls from water damage, mold and mildew. Invest in a new tub surround and make the most of your bathroom.